We are privy to a great Becoming:
In a room of sallow lighting, a man named Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) reads Time magazine. Emblazoned on the cover is William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, an awe-inspiring, violently sexual painting of a muscle-threaded monster seen from behind, its wings protruding majestically and its tail wrapping around a young woman. Dolarhyde is inspired. The music pounds, percussive clattering that suggests a migraine slowly swelling. He trains his body, carves his muscles, arches his back while emitting an anguished groan, as if expecting wings to tear through his skin. A tattoo needle punctures his flesh, over and over, like a dragon’s tongue dripping blood. Dolarhyde visits an antique shop, daubed in neon red, where he buys a full set of crooked teeth. In his apartment, we see Dolarhyde, gleaming off the slivers of broken mirror, transforming.
In less than five minutes, veteran horror director Neil Marshall has established the character, tone, and motifs that will make up the next (and final) six episodes of Hannibal. It’s a spectacular bit of filmmaking, a dialogue-free introduction to a character before whom we will inevitably tremble.
Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon has been twice tapped for the cinematic treatment, once by Michael Mann (who crafted the cult-favorite Manhunter), and two decades later by Brett Ratner (for the utterly forgettable Red Dragon). Manhunter has amassed a fervid legion of followers in recent years. Ratner’s film possibly has its apologists — I’ve never met any, but I’m sure they exist, somewhere. But Hannibal approaches the story differently. It seems to be weaving a tragedy instead of just a horror tale.
After the commercials (which really ruin Marshall’s clever transitions — ugh, capitalism), we cut to a young boy singing in a church. But it’s not a fancy church, like in Palermo. Folding chairs replace the pews. Marshall intercuts between the church and Hannibal’s arrest and the subsequent fallout, as the once-lauded MD is carted away and graphics of Freddie Lounds’s byline at the Tattler appear behind him. The high-pitched singing harkens back to the castrati, a gleefully sick metaphor for Hannibal’s emasculation behind bars. Hannibal has fallen from grace; he is, as Frederic Chilton says, the monster of monsters. Marshall, director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent, has a playful touch with the lurid material; he really gets the humor, and his sense of pacing is impeccable, with the long, slow conversations interrupted by Dolarhyde’s violent lapses with reality.
Alana Bloom visits Hannibal. They face the camera head-on, à la Jonathan Demme. Hannibal’s cell, more of a largely vacant office, looks like a conflation of the antiseptic white bricks and metal bars of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs’s gothic, Hammer Horror dungeon of red brick, shrouded in shadows, with a wide glass wall perforated by breathing holes. Hannibal “The Cannibal” has been denied his freedom, as well as his once-glorious hair, yet he still maintains an air of dignity.
“Congratulations,” Alana tells him. “You’re officially insane.”
He refutes this.
“For convenience," she goes on, "we categorize you as a monster.”
In Manhunter, Brian Cox inhabits Hannibal as a virile, yet passive-aggressive man who spits out dialogue officiously; in Lambs, Anthony Hopkins’s effete, erudite Lecter has perfect posture and impeccable manners, his articulation as exact and exacting as any knife. He’s still the scariest Lecter, since we never see him vulnerable or emotionally open — you can’t trust him. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal has opened up in slight, subtle ways, mostly to Will. There’s an almost Tilda Swinton–esque quality about him, a mix of masculine and feminine features, his face a flesh mask hiding some unutterable identity. He’s the first Lecter for whom we can actually feel … bad? Can you feel bad for a cannibalistic mass murderer?
Before she leaves, Alana reminds Hannibal that he made her a promise — “I always keep my promises,” he tells her for the second time.
In the shards of broken mirror, Dolarhyde broods. He steeples his hands above his head, looking like he wants to rip off his skin and crack open his skull. The moon hangs in the sky, a cold and bloated orb; Dolarhyde is drawn to it. His face contorts, as if there’s a disconnect between brain and body. Armitage is doing a lot of character building without any dialogue here: the operatic self-loathing, the estrangement, the difficulty with identity and reality — as good as Tom Noonan is in Manhunter, he only hints at these deep, percolating anxieties. (Ralph Fiennes was totally miscast in Red Dragon.) In the cold, dark night, Dolarhyde rises up, glazed in blood as black as tar.
Hannibal eats dessert with Chilton — cow’s blood and chocolate, Hannibal tells Chilton. “What about the last time you made this for me?” Chilton asks.
“The blood was from a cow, only in a derogatory sense.”
“Blood and chocolate,” Chilton says. “That’s what I was going to name my book. But I said I wouldn’t use a colon in the title. Colons lose their novelty when overused.”
Chilton is writing a book about the Tooth Fairy, who murders families on a lunar cycle. The Tooth Fairy, Chilton opines, has mainstream appeal — he’s a four-quadrant killer, whereas Hannibal, with his “fancy illusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal.” No other show comments on its own esoterica as well as Hannibal, and “The Great Red Dragon” has some of the spriest, sharpest writing so far, courtesy of Steve Lightfoot and Bryan Fuller, with co-writer Nick Antosca, whose adept repurposing of influences (see his novels Midnight Panic and The Hangman’s Ritual) fits the show naturally. The show has lifted entire pages of dialogue from Harris for three seasons, which only shows how great Harris’s dialogue is, but Fuller, Lightfoot, and Antosca add flair and wit and distribute Harris’s words carefully. It’s stellar writing.
Venting to Alana Bloom, Chilton complains that Hannibal Lecter writes about problems he doesn’t have, after Alana tells him Hannibal’s brilliant article on the Tooth Fairy will trounce Chilton’s book. In Red Dragon, Chilton is a snide, sniveling creep, perfectly captured by Anthony Heald in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Here, Raúl Esparza plays Chilton as exasperated, envious, but self-aware. Even Harris’s pettiest characters have depth in Fuller’s show.
Back in Wolftrap, Virginia, Will is with his dog. Jack Crawford rolls up in his SUV. Will doesn’t look thrilled to see Jack, whose beard is now mottled with gray. They sit on the porch, their breath escaping their mouths in plumes. “You don’t want to talk about it inside?” Jack asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere,” Will responds. “Don’t take the pictures out. Molly and Walter will be back soon.”
“You ever think about giving me a call?” Jack asks.
“No. I never called because … I didn’t want to. I can’t help you.”
Will is now happily married to Molly (Nina Arianda) and has an adopted son named Walter, who is 11. But Will has been following the Tooth Fairy slayings, and Molly knows that if he stays in the house and reads about another killing during the next full moon, it will sour his tranquil life with her and Walter. Will, she says, needs to do the right thing, a jarring departure from the novel and previous films, in which Molly tries to convince Will to stay home.
“If I go,” he tells her, “I’ll be different when I get back.”
Molly says, “I won’t.”
Hannibal has retained a lot of the plot points and dialogue from Harris’s novels, with nods to the books and subsequent adaptations strewn about like Easter eggs for perceptive fans. But the most significant difference between the novels and Bryan Fuller’s show is the relationship between Will and Hannibal. In Red Dragon, Will loathes Lecter so much, the last thing in the world he wants to do is see him again; when he receives a Christmas card from the psychiatrist, he burns it in his backyard and washes his hands. And yet Will knows that in order to catch the Tooth Fairy, he has to see Lecter. (He decides that on page 74.) The way Lecter picks at Will’s brain, his dexterous fingers digging through Will’s thoughts, is utterly devoid of the love and care that Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy have fostered on the show. Here, amid the cackle of a fire in a darkened room, Will pulls out of a trunk an unopened envelope adorned with that distinctive cursive; it predicts that Jack will come calling soon, and asks Will not to go back to the other side, into the darkness: “Madness is waiting.”
Will investigates the most recent victims’ home. The house is pervaded by selenian imagery: reflections, the halation of the flashlight, a half-eaten wheel of cheese. As Will’s flashlight passes over the blood-spattered carpet, the Leeds’ bodies appear. Will closes his eyes and delves into the crime scene, that Monster of the Week aesthetics slowly returning: “This is my design.”
Special agents Jimmy Price (Scott Thompson) and Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) make welcome returns, showing Jack a replica of the Tooth Fairy’s crooked teeth. “Snaggle tooth son of a bitch,” Jack says.
Will comes to a realization. He can’t solve this case on his own. He needs to probe his old mind, the one Molly helped him forget. He needs to go back into the darkness. He goes to Jack’s office:
“I have to see Hannibal.”